To seek that which makes us vulnerable is an evolutionary paradox to seeking that which yields love. To understand love one must ponder the potential hazards of vulnerability and our human willingness to proceed into possible devastation. Love is not for the faint of heart.
While science and the memoir, To Love What is by Alix Kates Shulman offer, respectively, clinical and anecdotal evidence of love, neither illustrates the precarious position we willing place ourselves in by loving another. Shulman’s idyllic marriage was obscured by fate. Reading her memoir, I empathized with her physical and emotional exhaustion, not her emotional pain. True, Shulman’s tenacity and devotion to her husband, Scott York, are an inspiring example of how much she loved him. However, I found myself empathically missing her independence and relationship with Scott more than feeling the immobilizing sadness that most certainly accompanied her loss.
Loving another, be it child, friend, mate or pet, makes us all vulnerable to loss. There is no way around it. The allure of love must be quite powerful to compel us into the precarious position of loving another. And yet, for 200,000 years the allure of love and attachment has been an integral component in our evolutionary success.
The allure of love does work within the concept of evolution, despite our exposed fragility. Feelings of love and attachment, fostered by the chemistry of love successfully motivated and continue to support attachment in humans as well as other animal species.
Evolutionary success is marked by failure and chance, which are the core elements of our vulnerability. However, the failure and chance associated with love are not restricted to biology. In studying love and its role in our evolutionary success, biological sciences focus on the motivating and rewarding aspects of love, largely ignoring the human response to the emotional pain inflicted by failure and chance. The rewards, motivations and vulnerability inherent in love are encompassed in the qualia of love, which cannot be articulated by fact-bound science.
The qualia of love are not limited to the effects of the dopamine highs and oxytocin rushes of love, which reward the pleasure centers of our brain. Biochemistry cannot explain Shulman’s devotion to her husband, Scott. Shulman’s dedication to her mate did not provide an evolutionary edge. If anything, physically caring for him increased her physical vulnerability; Scott was a big man who did have a few violent episodes after his traumatic brain injury, one of which resulted in Shulman summoning the police to her home. Additionally, the continual effort of rehabilitating Scott was physically exhausting and often emotionally depleting. Yet, Shulman persevered. How would science explain her fortitude?
Scientific explanations fall short in discussing love’s fortitude and life-altering power. Literature, with its imagery and depth, compels us to feel the bittersweet pangs and angst of love. Simon Van Booy assaults our souls with metaphors of love in the short stories found in The Secret Lives of People in Love. Representations of this assault are missing from both the implications in Shulman’s memoir and the scientific claims about love. While the science of love provides understanding as to the whys of love, I contend that a truer sense of love results when an empathic response is elicited. Literature can vicariously impart how it feels to love in a particular way, in a unique situation. Through literature we appreciate that beauty is not only possible within the pain caused by love but also, that that same pain can become a catalyst for beauty. There is an upside to vulnerability.